Gilbert and Ellice Islands   Page i Next  

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands

Gilbert and Ellice Overprint StampGEIC on the globeThe Gilbert and Ellice Islands were a British Protectorate and then a British Crown Colony up until October 1, 1975, when the Ellice Islands formally separated, after passing a referendum of secession in 1974. The Ellice Islands became the Crown Colony of Tuvalu, while the Gilbert Islands name was retained by the rest of the island districts in the colony. Both colonies became independent shortly after, Tuvalu in 1978 and The Gilbert Islands in 1979, changing their name to Kiribati.

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate was established in 1892 in the Central Pacific Ocean, named after the first two island groups that were declared part of the new territory. More islands were added later. Most of these islands were already under some sort of British protection, by the Pacific Islands Protection Act of 1857, and the British Western Pacific Territories Act of 1877.

The sixteen islands in the Gilbert group were Abaiang, Abemama, Aranuka, Arorae, Beru, Butaritari, Kuria, Maiana, Makin, Marakei, Nonouti, Nukunau, Onotoa, Tabiteuea, Tamana and Tarawa. The nine Ellice Islands were Funafuti, Nanumaga, Nanumea, Niulakita, Niutao, Nui, Nukufetau, Nukulaelae and Vaitupu. In 1900, Ocean island (Banaba), to the west of the Gilbert group, was included within the protectorate, followed by the Union (Tokelau) Islands in 1910.

GEIC FlagThe status of the The Gilbert and Ellice Islands was change to that of a Crown Colony in 1916, at the request of the natives. That year, Fanning and Washington Islands, two of the Line Islands group, were included within the Colony, along with the Union (Tokelau) Islands. Christmas Island was incorporated in 1919. The Union Islands were removed from the Colony and transferred to New Zealand control in 1926, administered from Apia in Samoa. The Phoenix Islands, which consisted of Canton (Kanton), Enderbury, Birnie, McKean, Phoenix (Rawaki), Sydney (Manra) and Gardner (Nikumaroro) Islands were included as part of the Colony in 1939. The United States also had claims on Canton and Enderbury, and in 1938 they were placed under joint British and American control.

The Japanese invaded the Gilbert Islands in late 1941, and Tarawa, Butaritari and Abemama were subsequently heavily fortified. The other islands, including Ocean Island were occupied with nominal forces. The Ellice Islands and the other groups remained under British control, along with American occupying forces. The Americans recaptured all the Gilbert Islands by the end of 1943.

In January 1972, the Central and Southern Line Islands of Caroline, Flint, Malden, Starbuck and Vostok were included in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony.

Most of the islands in the group are atolls or raised coral Islands, rising no more than a few metres above sea level. The soil is rather poor, making agriculture difficult.

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